What one worker learned from his time overseas

From the first to the twenty-first century the Church’s witness to the gospel has gone through many Star Trek moments. It is the nature of mission and the work of the Spirit to take us where we’ve not been before and beyond our comfort zone.

Experiences of discomfort and unfamiliarity are often instrumental in authenticating our witness and bringing about transformation in our own lives.

How disconcerting must it have been for the disciples to follow Jesus through Samaria, find him talking with a social outcast, and then to have to stick around for breakfast with Samaritans for the next two days. Because ordinarily, a Jew would have nothing to do with a Samaritan (John 4:9). This encounter changed the people (John 4:42), but it must surely have been transformative for the disciples as well.

Transformation is part of any authentic missional encounter – and not just for the recipient. In Acts 10:23, Peter found that in the closeness of hospitality, stereotypes and prejudices began to be dismantled. His ‘sound’ theological categories started to expand and his ministry of sharing the good news became more aligned with what God was doing in the wider world.

In the years since my initial training for cross-cultural mission, I’ve realised more and more the importance of mutuality. Meaning that, when I encounter people from a different culture, I’m not simply giving something to them, or doing something for them. Rather, I’m crossing boundaries and entering a space that creates opportunities to listen and learn in such a way we are both changed.

Working in Malaysia changed me, but perhaps not in the ways  I’d expected.

I was based in a Bible seminary, so my job was to teach, to impart knowledge, to instruct and train. I certainly did some of that. However, my students and those I served with on the faculty and in the local church taught me more than I ever taught them.

For instance, I encountered a spiritual reality among my Malaysian students and colleagues that was beyond my own experience. My students may have had less theological knowledge, but they had more experience of Jesus. As the mission blogger Eddie Arthur put it in a recent post: ‘just because someone doesn’t cross all the theological i’s and dot all the t’s that we see as essential, doesn’t mean that they don’t have something to teach us.’

I also experienced real difficulties and some heartbreaking situations. These brought about a vulnerability, a reliance on those around me, the opportunity to receive love and protection, and a bond of community that I will forever be grateful for.

I had my name changed at a ceremony in a Kelabit long-house. I was given the name ‘Madah Karuh’ – teacher of the Word. That experience seemed to symbolise the ways in which I was allowed to enter the story of those to whom God had sent Christine and I – not least into the spiritual story of those who had already experienced the transforming work of the Spirit on individual and social life.

In his commentary on Acts, Willie Jennings describes missionaries who ‘showed something in their utter helplessness in the face of difference: they were there in a new land to be changed… to truly and deeply make themselves Christian in a new space that would mean that their names would be changed. They would become the sound of another people, speaking the wonderful works of God.’

When the Spirit sends us to explore strange new worlds, discomfort and difference become an ‘invitation to change, transform, and expand our identities into the ways of life of other peoples.’

Those of us who have been involved in crossing boundaries with the gospel, and agencies such as OMF that have had many years of experience in doing so – we ought to be channels of transformation back into our churches here in the UK. We can be agents and facilitators in helping our churches encounter and learn from churches in the majority world. As historians Carlos Cardoza-Orlandi and Justo Gonzalez point out:

‘Properly understood, the history of missions is not only the history of expansion of Christianity but also the history of its own many conversions – of what the church has learned and discovered as its faith becomes incarnate in various times, places and cultures.’

Dr. Peter Rowan

OMF (UK) National Director

1  Eddie Arthur, ‘They Taught Me More Than I Taught Them’ bit.ly/teachingme (accessed 9/03/2020).

2 Willie James Jennings, Theological Commentary on Acts:
A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Westminster John Knox Press, 2017) p.31

3 Ibid, p.88

4 Carlos F. Cardoza-Orlandi and Justo L Gonzalez, To All Nations From All Nations: A History of the Christian Missionary Movement (Abingdon Press, 2013), p.2-3.